June 25, 1979
Could Les Have Done More?
Rookie Manager Les Moss forged a winning record in Detroit, but the
Tigers fired him in favor of Sparky Anderson
Les Moss would fit right in among the tintypes hanging on the
walls at Cooperstown. He blends well with the furniture in hotel
lobbies. His ears are floppy and he wears wire-rimmed spectacles.
His skin is leathery, and there are gouges in his face. He is a
former catcher; his gnarled hands reveal his old trade. He usually
holds a Dixie cup in one of them to catch his sprays of liquefied
snuff. He has spent 35 of his 54 summers in organized baseball,
trying to get someplace. During that time he has ridden a lot of
buses that made stops in Americus, Elmira, Savannah, Lynchburg,
Shreveport, Montgomery and Evansville.
He caught for 13 years in the major leagues, most of them with
the hapless St. Louis Browns and the Chicago White Sox. In 1959,
the year Bill Veeck’s Sox won the pennant, Moss was sent back to
the minors. There he spent the next two decades hoping that someday
he would become a major league manager.
“Anybody who’s been around as long as I have wants it,” Moss
says. “Some players like to get away from the game. I wanted to
stay. If you want to stay in uniform, you want to manage if you
can’t play. Ten or 15 years ago, yes, I thought more about the
major leagues. But after you’ve been with minor league clubs for so
long, you say it’ll be fine if it comes along. But you don’t expect
Last September the Detroit Tigers unexpectedly appointed Moss as
their manager for 1979. He had worked with most of the young Tigers
when they played in Detroit’s minor league system, and the
promotion to the big league club was a reward for years of faithful
service. Besides, there was a vacancy. Ralph Houk, the Tiger
manager for five seasons, had quit.
Moss doesn’t have an awful lot to say. After Detroit victories,
all he would say to the hungry press was, “That was a dandy.” And
his baseball face would erupt into a sunshine smile.
Last week, after a major league managerial career of 53 games,
Moss was summoned to the executive suite at Tiger Stadium. Jim
Campbell, the Detroit president and general manager, told Moss he
had been fired. In the tradition of managerial dismissals, Moss was
offered another position in the organization. Predictably, he
Moss, though, was not fired for the traditional reason. He had
not failed. His young team had won 11 of its previous 16 games and
had a 27-26 record. The unpretentious Moss was fired so the Tigers
could hire the ebullient—and hugely successful—Sparky Anderson, who
had been given a pink slip by Cincinnati last November.
“I got information that Sparky was ready to go to work and that
he was talking to another club,” Campbell says. “I don’t know what
team it was that wanted him as manager. I wouldn’t ask him that.
But when I heard he was ready to go to work, I had to act. Had
Sparky not been available, we wouldn’t have changed managers.”
Anderson had won four pennants in nine years with the Reds, and
his name is rumored to have been atop the list of possible
managerial replacements in New York and San Francisco and a bunch
of places in between. He says half a dozen clubs had contacted him
during his exile, but he won’t identify them.
“I thought I’d sit out the entire season at home in California,”
Anderson said after arriving in Detroit last Thursday. “It wasn’t
tough until the Reds came out to Los Angeles late in May. Once I
was down on the field, sat in the dugout and talked with all the
players, it brought a lot of things back. I began getting very
itchy. By June 1st my wife could see it coming. I listened harder
to the Angels’ and Dodgers’ games. Before, I’d listen for a few
innings and go do other things. By the 18th of June, I would have
made a decision whether to go with another club. I can say I had an
offer. But I won’t say from whom.”
Campbell telephoned Anderson on Monday morning, June 11, at his
home in Thousand Oaks. They talked half a dozen times that day.
During the last call, Anderson agreed to manage the Tigers through
the 1984 season. His contract will pay him $110,000 this season
and, with annual increases, will escalate to an estimated $160,000
On Monday night a fretting Campbell was unable to sleep. He
rehearsed the words he would use to tell Moss he was fired 53 games
into his one-year, $55,000 contract. Moss was called to the front
office at 1 p.m. on Tuesday. Campbell wondered whether to close the
door or leave it open. At last, he shut it.
“Les, I’ve got to tell you something that’s not too pleasant,”
Campbell said. “We’re changing managers. I’m bringing Sparky
Anderson in to run the club.”
Moss looked at Campbell, soft blue eyes peering stoically
through the wire-rimmed glasses. “Well, that’s baseball,” he said
“I know I didn’t give you much of a chance,” said Campbell.
“I would have liked to have one full year at it,” Moss said.
Most of the Tiger players seemed genuinely stunned by Moss’
abrupt dismissal. Pitcher John Hiller, who has played for nine
managers in Detroit, said, “I feel personally responsible. If I’d
have pitched better, he might not have gotten fired.” Infielder
Mark Wagner said, “I can’t even try to understand it. Les went out
a winner. We were 27-26, weren’t we? He always has been a winner as
far as I’m concerned.”
Only Outfielder Ron LeFlore, whom Moss had benched for
disciplinary reasons one night this season, was critical of Moss.
“There’s a great amount of talent here and it wasn’t used like it
should have been,” LeFlore said. “Maybe he wasn’t forceful enough
to manage up here.”
Three days later Moss reflected on his dismissal at his modest
rented house in a workingman’s section of Detroit’s east side.
Baseball memorabilia dominated the decor in the living room. In the
kitchen, his wife Carol packed their belongings into cardboard
boxes for the homeward drive to Florida. Their German shepherd
barked at a visitor from the driveway.
“I’ve been an organization man all my life,” Moss said. “I’m not
bitter. This was one of those things. It’s part of the business. I
always said there’s no sympathy in baseball. I’ll scout National
League clubs the rest of this year. If I get another big league
job, I’ll jump at it. I’d like to manage in the big leagues. If I
don’t get a job, I’ll work my tail off for the organization—like I
have for 35 years.”
Moss was asked if he resented that he had been fired only
because Anderson was available.
“That goes right back to what I said,” he said, smiling a
little. “That’s baseball. They had a chance to get this guy.”
When Anderson took charge on Thursday night, he received a
standing ovation from the crowd at Tiger Stadium. He stepped out of
the dugout and waved his cap in salute to the fans. In the ensuing
hours he would guide the Tigers to the first of three straight
That night Moss went out of the house for the first time since
he had been fired. He watched a slow-pitch softball game.